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The UNC School of the Arts premiered an excellent and original Nutcracker film on Dec. 12 for their online scholarship benefit. A collaboration between the Departments of Music, Dance, Film, and Design and Production, the production demonstrated the inventive spirit and exceptional artistry characteristic of North Carolina's top-ranked public arts conservatory.
The film is an abridged "Nutcracker Suite" (the second act of the traditional ballet, mostly) which follows Clara (Emma Cilke) and her Prince (Julian Pecoraro) into a fabulous land of snow and sweets. All dancers were masked to match sparkling costumes (by Campbell Baird) and danced distanced (pas de deux were removed, for obvious reasons) in front of bright and detailed sets. While perhaps striking at first, masks did not provide for any distraction and were creatively incorporated (particularly in the Arabian dance, where dancers wore beautiful scarves draped over their faces, which only enhanced the outfits). All dancers demonstrated superb technique and great energy in each divertissement.
Though the film mainly focused on the familiar suite, it opened with a nod to the first act, starring guest artist from Dance Theatre of Harlem Anthony Santos (who also happens to be a UNCSA alum) as Drosselmeyer, Clara's mysterious and magical uncle. Santos was certainly a star: he is beautiful in classical technique and contemporary ballet movements, both of which he was able to express through Assistant Professor of Dance Ilya Kozadayev's original choreography. Though each piece was very brief – the whole film is not more than half an hour long – Kozadayev's choreography was lovely and interesting, complying to distancing and masking requirements without sacrificing grace or a sense of freedom that is essential to a successful dance performance.
In fact, all aspects of the production displayed artistic freedom in spite of the limits of the day. The music, which was directed by guest conductor Karin Hendrickson, performed by students, and recorded ingeniously (with the help of Chris Heckman. director of the Film Music Composition program) in segments to enable safe practices, was lush and lively. The digital format allowed for even more design possibilities, such as green screen projections, and the new narrative (removal of Act I replaced by a brief introduction by Drosselmeyer) offered unique set components such as a gorgeous clock and opening tool set-up in Drosselmeyer's workshop. This new narrative also allowed for an introductory reading by renowned actress Rosemary Harris, wife of the late UNCSA founder John Ehle.
Perhaps the most "free" of all the artists were the film-makers (under the direction of Henry Grillo, Thomas Ackerman, and Bob Keen),* who clearly enjoyed themselves, making use of pretty much every special effect in the book. Rats were zapped and disappeared into clouds of purple smoke; grand jeté leaps were extended in slow-motion. For a couple of different scenes, dancers were even shrunk to fairy-size, bourré-ing and pirouette-ing in the palms of hands. It could be said that some edits seemed, at times, superfluous, but they definitely added even more visual interest and were especially nice for the young audiences common at performances of Nutcracker. The brevity of each piece and overall length of the film also created an experience perfect for children, as the audience could never be distracted or bored.
Interim Dean of Dance and Executive Producer of this film, Jared Redick, said of the experience: "We find ways to innovate.... We are artists. That is what we do. We create, and we imagine, and we dream." It was inspiring to see these current and future artists so committed to their crafts and their dreams and to see them excel in the pursuit. UNCSA's The Nutcracker film will be available free to the public for on-demand streaming, beginning Dec. 17th. See our sidebar for details.
But remember that contributions are always welcome and are, this year, more important than ever. To donate, click here.
*Note: The Dean of the School of Design & Production is Michael J. Kelley. D&P played a big role in lighting, stage production, props, etc.